Opinion: Memo to AFL - Victoria needs you!
Friday, September 22 2006 @ 12:38 AM CST
Contributed by: Ash Nugent
Editor: The number of AFL clubs based in Melbourne has long been debated, and indeed there is little opposition to the view that if the VFL had not embraced the national concept, bringing in license fees and extra TV audiences from other states, often with over a century of footy tradition of their own, then many clubs would not have survived. But can they continue to support so many teams, some of which rely on an uneven distribution of funds to stay afloat? The AFL's recent funding announcements make it clear they wish to maintain the 16 clubs. This is a highly emotive topic that is not directly related to international development (though there are some linkages), and is an area WFN has deliberately steered away from. However our intrepid new reporter Ash has now launched headlong into the debate with some controversial views of his own.
The poor performance of Victorian teams in the AFL has been well documented in the media of late, especially considering that the final four teams left in this year's finals series are from outside the game's 'homeland'. Many argue that Victoria's continued starvation of a premiership is detrimental to the game. Below is my opinion on the problem with the AFL's current layout and how we can overcome it.
2005 saw the beginning of soccer's A-League in Australia; a new league, run by a new governing body bringing to Australia a new 'football'. In its debut season it was quite a success and the crowds Melbourne Victory drew at Olympic Park, were higher than Rugby League's team in the city, Melbourne Storm, who also plays their home games at the aforementioned stadium. Whilst soccer is unlikely to ever overtake Aussie Rules as the premier football code in Melbourne, it does stand to gain a stronger foothold in this state if Football Victoria, along with the AFL cannot get their act together and revamp the current system.
There are two main issues Victorian football needs to deal with. The first is that nine clubs in one city is unsustainable, I state nine in Melbourne and not ten in Victoria, as Geelong is supported by its own city, thus is exempt from my 'problem group'. The second is that Victoria's second-tier competition, the VFL and its under-18 affiliate, the TAC Cup are inferior to the state competitions in Western Australia and South Australia.
Because the VFL evolved into the AFL, as opposed to the AFL being formed from the strongest clubs from all the state leagues around the country, nine Melbourne clubs are all effectively 'sharing resources'. Ron Barassi brought up a very relevant point in a recent newspaper article. 'The Carlton-Collingwood clash is not there any more - it's Melbourne versus Melbourne. The suburban rivalry is no longer there.' It's not that the rivalry no longer exists, but people aren't turning up to see their suburb, they're turning up to see their city's club. How many Collingwood supporters actually live in Collingwood? Melbourne, having so many clubs can't mirror South Australia and Western Australia's derbies, even when you throw in the novelty factor of seeing two once-powerhouse clubs compete.
Collingwood is arguably the strongest of the Victorian AFL clubs. They have the outspoken President in Eddie McGuire, the lucrative sponsorships with Lexus, Adidas, Emirates, McDonalds, Wizard and Sony. They have the state of the art training facilities and the crowd pulling power. Membership aside (whilst not low, it is thousands lower than Adelaide's), they and probably Essendon are in the very elite group of clubs that can exist successfully in Melbourne's overcrowded market. They do not escape unscathed by this overcrowding though.
Is it not likely that the Melbourne clubs would have greater supporter bases if there was only four or even as many as six clubs in the city? Further to this is the issue of the talent pool. Whilst the draft is supposed to ensure equality amongst the clubs, rich and poor, a Melbourne club is likely to look for talent in Melbourne initially, especially when it comes to the rookie draft. This means that the talent pool, no matter how large, is being split nine times. The growing Queensland market is being split once. Whilst Brisbane did finish outside the final 8 this year, it is very unlikely that this will be the case in the next few years.
But this problem of an overcrowded market extends ever further. Melbourne clubs don't have a home ground advantage, or in a few cases, even the sway of the crowd. Melbourne has the unfortunate title of being a regular home to football games where the away team can have more fans turn up than the home side. Take a Kangaroos versus Collingwood match, or the Bulldogs versus Essendon. Even the derbies in South Australia and Western Australia, whilst somewhat dependent on each club's form, usually see the more home fans than away fans, because of ticket allocation. If there is a bias, it is minor, and it can occur at a maximum, twice in a year plus finals.
Non-Victorian clubs and the AFL have been quoted as saying that the dominance of the non-Victorian teams is cyclical, yet I challenge this legitimisation. Port Adelaide was admitted into the AFL in 1997. They have already won the same amount of Premierships as the Bulldogs and St. Kilda, seasoned football clubs in the country's 'elite-most league'. Further to this, Adelaide and West Coast, marginally older licences have been more successful when looking at what ultimately counts, Premierships won. Advantages aside, on paper there is a 56 percent chance that a Melbourne club will win the premiership in the competition's current layout. At least one Melbourne club theoretically must finish in the top eight. Yet look at the statistics another way. Only one club can be premiers in any given year. That means that no matter which Melbourne club wins, only 11 percent of fans will be happy. This does assume that support for clubs is divided evenly, which it isn't, but my point is still made. Obviously fifteen out of sixteen clubs aren't going to be happy each year, but is it healthy for eight or nine of them to be from the one city?
On top of this issue in the AFL, as far as I am concerned, we have an inferior state league compared to other states. There was optimism about the VFL this week that the Grand Final would draw a crowd over 20,000. They even considered moving the match to the MCG. The VFL should be drawing 5,000 plus crowds to every match and the crowd for the final should be in excess of 30,000. We currently have a system where AFL-aligned clubs compete against independent clubs. This skill difference is clearly evident, this week's VFL Grand Final sees two AFL-aligned clubs compete for glory.
From what I've just said, you could almost assume football in Victoria was headed for the scrapheap. But I am optimistic that if the right decisions are made, the AFL will avoid any permanent damage to the game. I have a few suggestions, and whilst they aren't the only option available to the AFL, hopefully they might provide some inspiration to someone involved in the game, someone with enough influence to implement change.
Firstly I recommend that the AFL cuts down the number of clubs in Melbourne. Keep in mind that any decision the AFL makes will leave some supporters unhappy and any decision they fail to make could be at the expense of the game. There are a few ways this can be done.
1. Relocations. Obviously clubs like Essendon and Collingwood will always remain in Melbourne. The Melbourne Demons would also be difficult to relocate for obvious reasons. I'm talking about shifting clubs like the Kangaroos (who coincidently I barrack for) to a region that is 'necessity' for the continued health of our game in Australia and to make the AFL a truly national competition. South Melbourne has successfully broken into the strongly rugby-dominated Sydney market and last year won the premiership. The celebration parade through the city of Sydney, in which they were awarded the keys to the city, drew a huge crowd and was televised nationally.
2. Mergers. Whilst famous merger-attempts like Melbourne-Hawthorn fell through in extraordinary circumstances, the Brisbane-Fitzroy merger is proof that success on and off the field can be the result of two properly married clubs. Three premierships and a much larger supporter-base later, many old-Fitzroy supporters, who were very unhappy at the close of the 1996 season, have fallen in love with their new club. Whilst mergers can be dangerous in that they can put people off the sport altogether, if handled properly they can be managed. Perhaps St. Kilda supporters would prefer to follow a joint Saints-Dogs side in Melbourne, than have to watch their now interstate-based club on television.
3. Relegation. Whilst I don't support a division-based AFL in which relegation and promotion occurs at the close of a season, as is the case in soccer in the English Premier League, there is the option of the AFL offering one-off 'opportunities' for Victorian AFL clubs to join/rejoin the VFL. Former NSL clubs in Victoria have returned to their state competition and still drew notable crowds, especially in their first season when they competed against clubs that they had not played against in decades. Whilst this is ultimately killing off any national support of the football club, the club returns to their suburban identity and remains in Melbourne where they would still receive some publicity in a revamped VFL. This is probably the most romantic notion of all options but the least likely to occur.
I feel that five or six Melbourne clubs in an expanded 18-club competition is ideal. This allows room for new entrants around the country whilst only affecting three or four of the current nine Melbourne clubs with relocation/merger/relegation options. Keep in mind that it is perceived several Melbourne clubs won't exist in their present state in the near future anyway, so this isn't as drastic as it seems.
New clubs would need to be formed to reflect Australia's population. The AFL has already signalled that the Gold Coast and West Sydney will have their own football clubs in the near future, a positive in my opinion. But we need to go further. Tasmania also needs a club and they have the advantage of being able to split games between two cities, Hobart and Launceston. Hawthorn's increased presence in the state will help, but it is not enough. Newcastle should also be considered. The city was important for football in its developing stages and it is home to more than half a million people. Canberra should be rewarded with their growing support of the AFL. I think that there is also potential for a football club in Australia's north. Darwin has the fans, but is not an ideal location, nor is their temperature levels. A club could potentially split games though, between say Darwin-Alice Springs-Cairns and another city in Queensland's north or at the top end of WA. It would serve smaller communities and offer them involvement in Australia's greatest sporting competition. Finally there is always that option of a New Zealand club, splitting games between two or three cities in the country. Whilst this is a possibility, and one that Rugby League, basketball and soccer have explored I think it is important to remember that we are a 'national' competition and we don't want to lose our identity altogether.
Of course such a layout would have to be implemented over a reasonable time frame but I feel that if we want to be considered a national competition, we need to be truly national. That is not odd games in non-traditional football cities, but having clubs based in them. People feel involved when a club is based around them. They may have had no feeling towards football previously, but when 'their' club is on the front page of 'their' city's sport section in 'their' newspaper, they suddenly want to know what the fuss is all about.
Apart from altering the layout of the competition, we need State of Origin back. The AFL has all but confirmed that it will return in 2008 as part of the 150 years of Australian Rules football celebrations. Whether it remains part of the football calendar is yet to be seen. State of Origin allows the best players from each state to play alongside each other. Misery at a failed season might be pushed aside by the joy of seeing state glory. The AFL has the player depth to have formidable sides in all the states (whether the model is based on the under-18 national competition, or the former Vic/SA/WA/All stars format). Football has developed enough support throughout the country to make Origin matches successful, irrespective or where in Australia they are held. People would turn out just to see the calibre of players in each side.
Finally are my thoughts on the VFL. Earlier I mentioned that the VFL evolved into AFL. This meant that we lacked a state competition. The VFA stepped up in an attempt to fill the void, but has never really been able to pull off the move. This now-VFL isn't a true representation of Victoria and doesn't have enough player depth.
To overcome this, firstly the TAC cup should be abolished and our under 18s should be playing in the VFL, thus readying new players for the big time. Immediately the standard of the competition would increase as would sponsorship potential. Secondly the VFL should reallocate its teams. Melbourne would have a club for every region of the city (East, Outer East, South-East and South etc.) These can be existing clubs or clubs promoted from regional leagues. For example, the Frankston Dolphins could still exist, only now they would be: 'The Frankston Dolphins, Serving Melbourne's south'. Clubs would also be based in the major towns and cities throughout Victoria. Often for country clubs, football is their lifeblood. Shepparton has a population of more than 35,000, so why shouldn't they have their own club to compete against Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and the Melbourne sides?
These VFL clubs would then be urged to do the groundwork for football. They would work closely with their community to hold football clinics and to be involved with the people. It is the ripple effect. If VFL players can work with children in schools and get them to attend weekend matches, their parents will most likely be dragged along also. If enough support can grow for the VFL clubs, not only will crowds increase but so should general interest in the game and this may lead to a crowd increase in the AFL. Numerous South Australians, when asked their football club, say an AFL club and a SANFL club. Why can't Victorians say an AFL and VFL club?
The VFL's purpose would be to reignite the passion for local football and to give Victorians someone to barrack for when their team isn't performing in the AFL. It is much better that a Carlton supporter turns to Frankston or Box Hill or North Ballarat when Carlton is losing than to Melbourne Victory or Melbourne Storm. At the moment there is little reason to. VFL clubs aren't representing of the people, yet this could so easily be turned around.
Further to all these points, the VFL is broadcast on the ABC - free to air television. At the moment this is one game a week but if a revamp occurred, who knows, a game could be aired on Saturday and Sunday. People like to see quality sport, regardless of whether it is at a professional, semi-professional or amateur level. If the VFL shows football of a high enough standard it will attract fans and this could be used to promote exactly what WFN deals with, the international game. If an Australian Rules football match was held overseas, in a developing nation, are the locals that are watching really going to be concerned if they are AFL or VFL clubs?
In regards to affiliation, all the VFL clubs would be independent (not aligned to an AFL club) and AFL players (keep in mind they would no longer be nine clubs) could either be divided evenly and randomly between VFL clubs or AFL reserves could be brought back. I strongly recommend against the latter as it is creating a tier of football where there isn't one (between State and National levels). Other states have managed to play their spare players in their state competitions so why can't Victoria manage it.
Whilst my suggestions are radical I think that radical action needs to be taken by the AFL if they want to remain a successful sporting body. Successful companies adapt with time and it is time the AFL did too. They shouldn't wait for a reaction and then act, like they did in Canberra and Northern Australia, but pre-empt a reaction. Football has reached the crossroads. The game is growing internationally and it needs a strong and capable body to base itself on. The AFL wants to be regarded as the keeper of the code. It should rise to the occasion, make the tough decisions and hope history judges it kindly.